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Poster A58, Thursday, August 16, 10:15 am – 12:00 pm, Room 2000AB

Pinpointing the neuroanatomical correlates of foreign language learning ability and musical aptitude

Sabrina Turker1,2, Annemarie Seither-Preisler1,3, Susanne M. Reiterer5, Annemarie Peltzer-Karpf2, Peter Schneider5;1Centre for Systematic Musicology, University of Graz, 2Department of English and American Studies, University of Graz, 3BioTechMed Graz, Austria, 4Department of Linguistics, University of Vienna, 5University Hospital Heidelberg, Department for Neuroradiology, Heidelberg, Germany

Various studies have shown that (1) musical ability and foreign language acquisition are positively correlated (Christiner & Reiterer, 2013; Dogil & Reiterer, 2009) and (2) working memory is an excellent predictor for foreign language aptitude (Wen, 2016). However, very few studies so far have investigated the relationship between these abilities considering variation in the neuroanatomy of specific brain regions (Golestani et al., 2006, 2011; Wong et al., 2007), such as auditory cortex. Interestingly, high musical ability could recently be linked to the morphology of Heschl’s gyrus (HG), a region essential for basic auditory processing (Seither-Preisler et al., 2014; Benner et al., 2017). Its importance for other abilities such as foreign language aptitude remains yet to be uncovered. The main aim of our research lies in further exploring the intricate interdependence between musicality, language aptitude and working memory in different age groups. Although numerous studies have highlighted positive correlations between them, hardly any studies have looked at the basis and nature of these relationships. Moreover, we are using innovative brain segmentation procedures for relating the aforementioned abilities to structural variation in human auditory cortex, more specifically HG, using BrainVoyager QX software. Our projects involve healthy, German-speaking adults (N=30, aged 20-40 years) and children/teenagers (N=55, aged 10-17 years). All subjects underwent extensive behavioral testing, including language aptitude tests [Hindi speech imitation test (Reiterer, 2009), LLAMA (Meara, 2005) and MLAT (Carroll & Sapon, 1959)], working memory skills (digit span backward and forward, non-word span) and musicality (AMMA; Gordon, 1986). Additionally, the young subjects’ performance in an arithmetic fluency test (Vogel et al., in press) and the MULTAP (Christiner & Reiterer, 2017) was included. All subjects took part in MRI sessions (T1 Scans) and we analyzed the number of HG in the auditory cortices of these individuals and calculated possible interdependencies between these characteristics. On the behavioral level, we were able to find striking correlations between all investigated measures, namely working memory and speech imitation skills, as well as musicality and language aptitude in both age groups. Additionally, the gross morphology of auditory cortex of adults could be successfully linked to high language learning ability and musicality. Gifted adults had significantly more HG duplications, but only in the right hemisphere. Preliminary findings of a subgroup of the children and teenagers reveal no brain-morphological differences in auditory cortex according to aptitude so far. In the children/teenager sample, we were further able to highlight various behavioral relationships between self-rated aptitude, parents’ rating and with school grades, as well as with musical ability, singing skills and higher scores in a variety of cognitive measures (e.g., working memory). In summary, we were able to identify specific neuroanatomical markers for language und musical aptitude in right auditory cortex. These markers, which are highly stable over time, are likely to be under pre-natal and/or genetic influence and may thus represent a neural basis for an individual’s intrinsic motivation to learn new languages and to play musical instruments.

Topic Area: Language Development

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